SPRINGFIELD — Setting the tone for his November re-election bid, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn asked the General Assembly on Wednesday to help him create jobs and boost income and opportunity for poor people.
Seeking to blunt the attacks of his Republican opponents when it comes to the state's economic performance, the 65-year-old Democrat from Chicago used his annual State of the State address to highlight last month's passage of a money-saving plan to overhaul the state's employee pension systems, as well as his administration's success in whittling down a massive pile of unpaid bills.
"Illinois is making a comeback," Quinn said.
The 41-minute speech came five years to the day after Quinn assumed the top spot in state government after the Senate voted to boot his former running mate, Rod Blagojevich, out of office for a litany of ethics problems.
"It was a perfect storm, and it left destruction in its path," Quinn said of Blagojevich's ouster. "We all knew that repairing the damage that had been done over decades would not happen overnight."
From legalizing gay marriage to reforming Medicaid, the governor cited successes he said can serve as a blueprint for the future.
"I ask today for your partnership," Quinn told members of the House and Senate. "Together, we've weathered the worst man-made storm in our state's history. Let's keep our shoulder to the wheel and finish the job."
Republicans scoffed at the governor's notion of a comeback, saying Illinois still lags behind its neighbors on key measures of the economy, including the minimum wage.
"I find it very, very hard to comprehend anybody standing up there and credibly suggesting that everything is fine when obviously it isn't," said Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet. "Macon County, which I represent, has the highest unemployment in the state."
Added Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, "I don't see this picture as optimistically as the governor does."
Democratic Sen. Mike Jacobs of East Moline, however, said Quinn deserves some credit.
"People can quibble over whether you like what he's done or hasn't done, but I give him kudos that — for as long as I've been here — I've never seen a governor move this body the way he's done in the last couple of years," Jacobs said.
Quinn unveiled several proposals he said will spur job creation, including a reduction in the amount certain kinds of fees businesses pay to register with the state. He also plans to appoint a new small-business czar, who will investigate ways to streamline business regulations.
"Small business always means big business in Illinois," Quinn said.
He also wants to expand a loan program that helps cities revamp aging water and sewer systems and, in the process, create thousands of jobs.
At the same time, however, the governor offered the four GOP candidates who want his job ample ammunition for the coming campaign on issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to giving low-wage taxpayers a bigger tax break.
Following in the footsteps of President Barack Obama's call Tuesday for an increase in the federal minimum wage, the governor called on lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate to join with him in boosting the base pay for entry level workers in Illinois to $10 an hour, up from the current state rate of $8.25 an hour.
He also wants to pass a law requiring employers to give workers two paid sick days.
"Let's get this job done and make our economy work for working families," said Quinn, who faces a primary challenge from community activist Tio Hardiman.
The governor also proposed doubling the earned income tax credit for low-income families. And he outlined the need to expand spending on prenatal care for low-income women by linking expectant mothers with schools, churches and hospitals.
He said the so-called "Birth to Five" concept would be one of his priorities in the coming session, but he offered up no cost details. Those could come when the governor delivers his annual budget address next month.
His Republican counterparts panned Quinn's speech and said the state has stumbled in its recovery.
Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, called the governor's positive thoughts on job creation "delusional"
"I just think he's naive to think he's going to get another five years," Brady said.
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford also questioned whether Illinois was on the comeback trail.
"We're not trending in the right direction," the Chenoa Republican said.
Wealthy hedge fund manager Bruce Rauner of Winnetka said Illinois is in an "economic death spiral."
"We're one of the worst-run states in America," Rauner told reporters after the speech.
Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, said Illinois still has a lot of work to do to get on track.
"You've got to have a lot of perfume to cover up the fact that we are dead last in projected job creation in 2014 by two national groups," Dillard said.